Running late for work one morning, the young man decided he would take a cab. But when he came to the edge of the sidewalk and held out his hand, nothing happened. Cab after available cab drove by, yet, strangely, none of them stopped. He tried everything — stepping into the street, waving his hand, even whistling — but the cab drivers simply ignored him.
It must be some kind of protest, he thought, and headed for the subway.
He was delayed there too. The train was on time, the trouble was getting on board. The passengers standing in the doorway wouldn’t let him through. There was plenty of room, and he couldn’t understand why nobody would step aside. Like the cab drivers, the other passengers seemed utterly unaware of him. The doors closed, the train pulled away, and the young man was left standing on the platform.
When he finally made it to the office, nobody said anything to him about coming in late. In fact, they said nothing to him at all, not that morning, not the rest of the day. Nobody greeted him in the hallway, or came by his desk to make small talk. His comments in meetings went unacknowledged, the conversation carrying on as if he had said nothing at all. He received no phone calls and his inbox was improbably empty.
At first he assumed his coworkers were playing a prank on him. But when he came in the next day, nothing had changed. The entire office, from the security guard to the head of the company, none of them said a word to him or so much as looked in his direction. It was the same thing the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
No, it could not have been a prank, for wherever the young man went, people treated him like he was invisible. On the first day, he went down to the deli for lunch and waited for somebody to take his order. After half an hour it became clear that nobody would, though they helped every other customer, and so he went down the street to another deli. But he was no better off there, or at any other lunch place in the city. It didn’t matter where it was — the coffee shop, the grocery store, the dry cleaners — or who — his boss, his doorman, a stranger passing on the sidewalk, the driver of an oncoming bus. He could tap them on the shoulder, or shout in their faces, or knock them to the ground — it didn’t matter what he did, nobody took any notice of him at all.
I must be dreaming, he kept thinking. Yet each morning he awoke to find himself in the same predicament. It was as if he were a ghost, passing through the world unseen, unheard, unfelt. If it really was a dream, it was one from which he could not awake.
The young man did not go to work the following Monday, or ever again. The first thing he typically did each morning was go to the door for the paper. But the paper hadn’t been delivered in more than a week, and neither had his mail. His phone line was dead, the TV was all static, and though he still had water and gas, he wondered for how long.
He left his apartment and went down to the coffee shop, where he slipped unnoticed behind the counter and prepared his coffee himself. He spent the rest of the morning undisturbed at one of the corner tables, reading a paper he had taken from a news stand. He even got to the crossword, for which he never had time. But he had nowhere to be, and nothing he needed to do.
In the following days and weeks, the young man came to accept his new condition. He walked everywhere, avoiding the subway and other crowded spaces, where being overlooked could be a liability. He shoplifted food and other necessities, knowing he would never be caught. And while the thought of robbing a bank or committing a similar crime did occur to him, he quickly saw that money was worthless to him now, for he had no way to spend it, and no real need to.
There was no shortage of things to do for a man in his situation. He went to the movies and saw shows on Broadway, avoiding the hassle of getting tickets and waiting in line. He attended basketball games at Madison Square Garden, taking in the action from atop the court-side scoring table. He visited museums, arriving just before closing time, as the guards cleared out the last visitors, leaving him free to wander the empty galleries alone.
He walked, and walked, all over the city, until he had seen every neighborhood, and visited every landmark, even the private ones. He had read books in Gramercy Park, and smoked a cigar in the Metropolitan Club. He had been to the gold vaults in the basement of the Federal Reserve, and had stood on the UN floor during the General Assembly.
In all this time, nobody came to check up on him, not any of his coworkers, not his neighbors, not his friends. He went to the police station to see if his name was in the missing persons records. It was not. As far as he knew, nobody ever attempted to find out what had happened to him, not even his parents. He had gone so long without human interaction that he began to forget what it felt like to be part of a conversation, or have somebody look him in the eye, or take his hand in theirs.
While out walking one evening, the young man spotted an old friend. She appeared to be looking for someone, and when she turned in his direction, her face lit up, and it seemed, for a moment, that she had recognized him, that she had seen him.
But his hope turned to disappointment when another man elbowed past him. She went up and hugged him, and together they started walking away. The young man followed.
He followed them to a small, candlelit restaurant, followed them to their very table, to which he pulled up a chair. Her date was handsome and confident, and said all the right things. His jokes made even the young man laugh. When they ordered a bottle of wine, the young man took a glass from the next table and poured himself some.
The date went well. From the restaurant they went to a bar for another drink, then to an ice cream stand for dessert. The young man went with them. He watched them kiss on the stairs outside her apartment building, her arms wrapped around his shoulders. Then she led him upstairs. The young man stood on the stoop for a very long time, but did not follow.
He wandered through the city. The night was cool and clear, the city’s glare drowning out all but one or two stars. He came to a bar in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Seizing a bottle from the unsuspecting bartender, he went to a corner and poured himself glass, after glass, after glass, after glass, until he forgot all about his friend, forgot about everything.
In the morning he awoke on the pavement outside the bar. He lurched back to his apartment. The door was open and several men were carrying away his sofa and other belongings. Inside, his landlord was showing an eager-looking couple around. The young man went into his bedroom and packed a suitcase.
He took a room at a nearby hotel. Every few days the hotel would book the room, but he would just go down the hall and find another. He kept this up for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Winter was fast approaching and he was not looking forward to having to walk everywhere.
By then he was tired of watching movies and shows, most of which he had seen two or three times, tired of going to games, and looking at art. He took up reading. He preferred long, elaborate novels with complex characters, perhaps because those characters provided the closest thing to an encounter with another, real person. But it was exactly those encounters that he missed. He found himself closely observing everyone around him. He would go to bars and float from conversation to conversation. He sat in on picnics in the park, and listened to groups of friends catching up over lunch. Sometimes he would pick somebody out of a crowd and follow him, to his office, to his lunch break, to the store, to his home, where his wife, and his children, and his pets were waiting. He would watch him eat dinner, and wash the dishes, and do homework with his kids, and read them bedtime stories, and tuck them in, and say, I love you. He saw men and women talking about their days, stressing out over bills, and getting into arguments, and making love, and having affairs, and getting divorced, and remarried. He saw anniversaries and graduations, births and funerals, life and death.
The leaves in Central Park fell to the ground, winter came, the snow buried the leaves and melted, and piled up, and melted again. One day the young man packed his suitcase and got on the subway. He rode it all the way out to Queens, then took the shuttle to the airport. After passing through security unscreened, he stood in front of the departures board deciding where to go. He settled on Cape Town, a place he had only read about, and several hours later, he was there.
By spring the young man had traveled throughout South Africa. He would see most of the rest of Africa, before moving on to the Middle East, then Central Asia, then the Sub-Continent, and so on. He circled the globe, once, twice, maybe more, he lost track. He spent time in cities and in villages. He climbed mountains and slept under trees and swam in rivers. He visited ruins of ancient civilizations, and tried foods he couldn’t recognize, and witnessed strange customs, which eventually became familiar, and learned languages, and forgot them. He forgot many things — his old address, the color of his first car, the names of his friends, and then their faces, and then his own face. But each lost memory was replaced by a new one, and all of his days were filled with wonder.
And so the man — for he was no longer young —saw all, though he himself was never seen again.